Behind Lee’s Bread-and-Butter Cutter
As a Minor Leaguer, Future Rangers Ace Was Able to Learn and Master a Cut Fastball, Which Is ‘Just Like a Changeup’
By MIKE SIELSKI
The pitch that, by Cliff Lee’s own admission, set him on the way to stardom is at least 100 years old. It was taught to him by someone who never pitched in the major leagues and had learned it from someone who used it in a World Series against hitters who weren’t trying to hit it.
The pitch is Mr. Lee’s cut fastball, and the story of his discovery and mastery of it is the opening chapter in the winding narrative of his rise into the most feared starting pitcher of this postseason.
When Mr. Lee, a left-hander, starts Game 3 of the American League Championship Series tonight for the Texas Rangers, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and the rest of the Yankees’ right-handed hitters will have to guard against the pitch boring through the strike zone toward their knuckles and splintering their bats.
In a career in which Mr. Lee has been traded four times, has won the American League Cy Young Award, has been demoted to and recalled from the minor leagues, and now stands to sign a lucrative free-agent contract this off-season, the cut fastball has remained an essential and reliable element of his repertoire.
“There were a lot of different points and times where I felt like I really improved,” Mr. Lee said. Learning the cut fastball “was one of the biggest things that happened for me.”
Mr. Lee, 32, didn’t throw the pitch until 2001, when, having been a fourth-round draft pick of the Montreal Expos, he started 20 games for the Class A Jupiter Hammerheads of the Florida State League. There, he came under the tutelage of coach Arthur “Ace” Adams, who taught the cut fastball to any young pitchers who, he said in a phone interview, “needed something to throw inside.”
At that time, Mr. Adams had not been the only evaluator to consider Mr. Lee a promising if unfinished prospect. Mr. Lee is regarded these days as baseball’s preeminent control pitcher; he walked only 18 hitters in 212 1/3 innings this season, and in his two victories and 16 innings against Tampa Bay in the ALDS, he struck out 21 batters without issuing a base-on-balls.
But when Joe Jordan, then a scout for the Expos, watched Mr. Lee pitch for the University of Arkansas in the late 1990s, he saw a pitcher who relied primarily on his fastball, not on his control and command, to get hitters out.
“He was nothing like he is now,” Mr. Jordan, now the scouting director for the Baltimore Orioles, said by phone. “He was more of a stuff guy.”
Mr. Lee entered the Expos’ farm system with an assortment of pitches, including a slider, but his fastball was the foundation of his approach. During spring training 2001, Mr. Adams monitored Mr. Lee’s workouts to get a sense of his strengths and weaknesses, and when the two of them arrived in Jupiter, Mr. Adams suggested that Mr. Lee drop his slider and add a cut fastball.
Before his own brief minor-league playing career had petered out and he began coaching in the Expos’ organization, Mr. Adams had been an All-Big Ten pitcher at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s.
He learned the cut fastball from Wolverines coach Ray Fisher, who had pitched in the majors from 1910 to 1920—the first eight of those years with the Yankees. Mr. Fisher went 100-94 with a 2.82 earned-run average over his career, using his cutter to help the Cincinnati Reds reach the World Series in 1919.
The Reds’ opponent was the Chicago White Sox, known as the “Black Sox” for the eight players who earned lifetime bans from Major League Baseball for their participation in a conspiracy to throw games in that year’s Series. Cincinnati won the best-of-nine set, five games to three, but Mr. Fisher was the losing pitcher in Game 3 and pitched in relief in the Sox’s Game 7 victory.
“You know what he said?” said Mr. Adams, now the pitching coach of the Batavia Muckdogs, the St. Louis Cardinals’ affiliate in the Single-A New York-Penn League. “I pitched twice against those guys when they were trying to blow it, and I still couldn’t beat them.”
Mr. Adams taught Mr. Lee the same grip and release of the cut fastball that Mr. Fisher had taught him: Hold the baseball off-center, rotate your wrist a quarter-turn in, and throw it with the same motion and force as you would a fastball. The wrist rotation and off-center grip increase the pitch’s movement and decrease its velocity. He had Mr. Lee play a lot of catch to grow comfortable with the pitch before allowing him to use it at less-important moments in games.
“Then, all of a sudden, it’s just like a changeup,” said Mr. Adams, who has since bestowed the cut fastball to Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, among others. “You have a little success with it, and now you’re throwing it 0-2 and 1-2 and striking guys out with it.”
Over 109 innings that season for the Hammerheads, Mr. Lee posted a 2.76 ERA and struck out 129 hitters. The following year, the Expos traded him, outfielder Grady Sizemore and infielder Brandon Phillips to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Bartolo Colon. It was in Cleveland where Mr. Lee emerged as an elite major-league pitcher, going 18-5 in 2005 and leading the American League in wins (22) and ERA (2.54) in capturing the 2008 AL Cy Young Award.
Over his seven career postseason starts with the Philadelphia Phillies and the Rangers, he is 6-0, has posted a 1.44 ERA and has pitched 56 1/3 innings. He has a robotic veneer on and off the mound, working with a metronome’s rhythm while he’s pitching, responding to questions with such brevity and self-assurance that he seems a mystic.
“There’s nothing that’s going to put pressure on me,” he said of facing the Yankees in Game 3. “I expect to be successful every time.”
He was no less confident as a 22-year-old minor leaguer, according to Mr. Adams and Jupiter manager Tim Leiper. One day, against the Tampa Yankees, Mr. Lee removed himself from a game because of a dead arm. The Hammerheads did not allow him to pitch again for another four weeks, and Mr. Adams remembered Mr. Lee’s telling him: I‘ll never do that again. I could have pitched two days later. I’ll never take myself out of a game.
To Messrs. Adams and Leiper, though, what made Mr. Lee’s performance that season more impressive was their knowledge of the personal strain under which he pitched. Earlier in the year, Mr. Lee’s infant son Jaxson, now 9, had been diagnosed with leukemia.
“He was just remarkably poised,” Mr. Leiper said. “His competitiveness was far greater than most people’s. Now, you throw the stuff on top of it, and that’s why you’re able to get what you get out of him right now.”